Title: Cultivating green thumbs
FLORIDA TODAY (Melbourne, FL)
Young minds are eager to learn the secrets of gardening
BETSY S. FRANZ for Florida Today
Eleven-year-old Stacy McCown of Malabar loves to garden. She loves it so much that, almost entirely on her own, she has developed a knowledge of plants and gardening techniques that could rival many local garden enthusiasts.
Stacy can ramble off the names of host plants for various butterflies, easily tell the difference between native and exotic plant species, and describe various methods of plant propagation in detail. But Stacy considers her garden a place of fun rather than learning.
"I really just like being outside and digging holes," Stacy said.
And yet, Stacy's "fun" has led to a deep botanical and environment knowledge.
"These are all citrus trees," Stacy said while pointing out some of the new plantings in her home landscape. "But they're too close together, so we need to move one. Citrus trees have to be at least 15 feet apart so when they get big, they won't be competing for water."
Lisa McCown, Stacy's mother, also enjoys gardening, but she doesn't take the credit for Stacy's horticultural knowledge.
"She has really learned most of it on her own," Lisa said. "We go to the library and whatever she is interested in, she checks out and she learns it. She has learned about butterfly gardening and plant propagation from books."
Stacy also attends Florida Native Plant Society meetings with her mother and often goes to the Palm Bay Extension Service office for advice.
Lisa explained why she feels the garden is such a perfect learning environment for Stacy.
"It's something that she is interested in so she can look something up on her own and come out here in the garden and apply it. That's what makes her learn."
Aside from the gardening expertise Stacy provides at her Malabar home, her quest for knowledge often leads her to new discoveries, which she shares with her family.
"We had a mother armadillo and its babies on our property," Lisa said. "Stacy told me that it was a nine-banded armadillo and that they always have four babies. It sounded so far-fetched that I didn't really believe her. But sure enough, she showed me where she read it in a book. They always have four babies."
Stacy's enthusiasm for gardening helps to prove what educators have known for years: A garden isn't just the perfect place to raise tomatoes and roses, it's also an ideal place to raise your kids.
"All knowledge is rooted in wonder" said Sharon Lovejoy, award-winning author and lecturer, in her book, Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots: Gardening Together with Children."What better place to cultivate wonder than in our own gardens."
Studies by Texas A&M University, the National Gardening Association and other organizations show garden programs for children are effective not only in increasing a child's interest in life sciences and environmental issues, but also in increasing a child's self-esteem and developing a strong sense of responsibility. And a point that most parents can relate to -- getting children involved with gardening helps improve their attitude toward healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Area teachers are eager to heed the call of these studies and get students out into the garden. When Peggy Cooper's fourth-grade class at Apollo Elementary was asked, "Who likes to garden?", almost all the students raised their hands. And the reasons they gave were far deeper than just wanting to get out of the classroom and into the fresh air.
"I like to garden so that more animals can find more plants to feed on," said 11-year-old Paige Perez.
"I like to garden because you can plant things you can eat, like vegetables, oranges and grapefruit", said 9-year-old Jamell Fayson.
And 11-year-old Adria Flake seemed to just like the educational and discovery aspects of gardening. "You get to learn how the flowers grow," said Adria, "and when you plant a seed, its fun to see what color the flowers are going to be."
Cooper is working hard to encourage this appreciation of gardening by taking her students out of the classroom and letting them dig in. With funds received from a grant from The Boeing Co., Cooper and her students have begun work on a butterfly garden, which they plan to use for their own education as well the enjoyment of all students at Apollo.
"Before we actually started this project," said Cooper, "the students researched what butterflies need in order to survive as well as what their caterpillars need. They also determined which butterflies live in this area. After they made their list of plants, they decided what we would need in order to start a butterfly garden. I did peak their interest about the whole process when I brought in the portable butterfly garden from home filled with caterpillars from my own garden."
The hands-on experience children receive working in their garden provides an excellent means for them to better understand lessons taught in class.
"We have been studying what plants and animals need to survive," Cooper said. "And we have been studying about vascular and nonvascular plants. This butterfly garden helps the students better understand these science concepts. We have also learned about metamorphosis, so now they can actually see the process."
Though still in its early stages, the students already have been busy creating their garden. The head custodian, Howie Marr, nailed landscape timbers together to create the garden space, which the students began filling with the plants. Maintaining the garden will involve on-going lessons on care requirements of the plants and animals that live in the garden. Research on environmentally responsible pest control will be another required lesson for the students.
Although Cooper developed her lesson plans on her own, many organizations offer curriculums and study plans for teachers and other youth groups, as well as advice for parents that want to share the gardening experience with their kids. These programs, such as the National Gardening Association's KidsGardening Program and the University Cooperative Extension network's Junior Master Gardener Program, have developed detailed curriculums to assist teachers and parents who want to encourage a love of gardening in their kids. Many of these programs provide grant money to help teachers get started.
The kidsgardening Web site (www.kidsgardeningcom) offers a 10-chapter primer for parents who want to encourage gardening at home, which covers topics such as what you can expect your child to accomplish at various ages and what turns kids on and off about gardening. This Parent Primer seeks to do much more than teach parents the basics about gardening with their children. It also hopes to teach parents to take advantage of "gardening moments" with their kids every week in their own yards.
Children can teach parents to look at gardening from a different level and to deeply explore the world around them. Parents may be great at planning and planting, but children know how to touch, smell, explore, discover and play. Enjoying and learning from the gardening techniques of children can add as much to the life of an adult as it does to the child.
Into the kitchen
Rob Leonard of Melbourne has learned to value these gardening moments with his son, Robby, and daughter, Melissa. Together, they have started a hobby they share outdoors and indoors.
"I like to grow herbs," said Robby, 9. "I like the taste of them. My dad likes to cook and that's pretty much the whole reason we grow herbs. Dad asked me to help at first, but then I got interested. We grow basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and mints. Oh, yeah. And chives, dill, coriander and parsley, too. We cook with all of them."
Robby's dad realizes how much gardening has added to their family time together.
"When we first started, the upshot was to have an activity we could do outside together," Leonard said. "Gardening was a great way to get outside and goof around and plant stuff and watch it grow."
But the family time formed in the gardens soon became family time in the kitchen, as well.
"The herb garden has opened a whole new thing with Robbie cooking," Leonard said.
These enthusiastic young gardeners probably would all agree: Florida's weather gives parents and educators the perfect opportunity to teach kids about nature in the way that works the best -- from hands-on activities in the yard and garden.